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The Suns Dethrone the Lakers, Leading to an Offseason of Tough Questions

Phoenix booked a showdown with Nikola Jokic while the defending champs unraveled in their repeat quest, likely confirming they will look very different next season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The title defense is over; a new champion will be crowned; the kings, so to speak, are dead. Devin Booker slayed them.

Scripture teaches us that to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man, and from the moment the Suns took the court at Staples Center for Thursday’s Game 6, it was crystal clear that Booker was intent on doing just that. The 24-year-old two-time All-Star wasted little time establishing himself as the best player on a court that included LeBron James and Anthony Davis—or distorted versions of them, anyway—by pouring in 22 points in the first quarter, shooting the lights out from beyond the arc, and propelling second-seeded Phoenix to a massive lead that it would never relinquish.

Booker would finish—loudly, emphatically, unrepentantly—with 47 points on 15-for-22 shooting to go with 11 rebounds and three assists in 46 minutes; only Charles Barkley and Steve Nash have ever scored more in a playoff game in a Suns uniform. Phoenix would finish with a 113-100 win that was rarely as close as the final score indicated, leading wire to wire and by as many as 29 in an utter shellacking that left no doubt which team, as presently constituted, is better.

Booker, Chris Paul (eight points, 12 assists, and just one turnover in 29 minutes of banged-up Point God play), ascendant big man Deandre Ayton (who averaged a shade under 16 points and 11 rebounds on 80 percent shooting in a sublime postseason debut), and the rest of the Suns will now go on to face presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets, who finished off their own first-round series by knocking off Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers in Game 6 in Portland on Thursday. The Lakers will now go on to … well, that’s an interesting question.

Booker delivered the coup de grace, but any honest postmortem of the 2020-21 Lakers must acknowledge that debilitating injuries were the team’s primary cause of death. L.A. was 21-6, with the league’s second-best record and point differential, when Anthony Davis went down in February. The Lakers were 28-14, ranking in the top five in both record and point differential, when LeBron went down in late March.

Both came back before the postseason, and each had their moments: AD going for 42-12-5 on this same Suns squad a month ago, LeBron closing out the Warriors in the play-in tournament, AD dominating Phoenix in games 2 and 3 to the tune of a combined 68 points and 21 rebounds to give the Lakers a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. But then Davis, who’d already hyperextended his left knee in Game 3, strained his groin in Game 4, which knocked him out of Game 5 and, frankly, probably should’ve ruled him out of Game 6.

He was cleared to play about an hour before tipoff, but it was abundantly clear almost instantly that he wasn’t the AD of earlier in the series; he moved gingerly, looked primarily to pass around the perimeter without attacking the basket, and pulled up in evident pain when forced to guard Booker in space.

Davis’s night ended after just five and a half scoreless minutes. Shortly after his exit, Phoenix ripped off a 17-5 run that pushed the lead past 20 points, and that, for the most part, was that, because the Lakers couldn’t score enough to make up the gap.

LeBron’s stat line for the series wound up looking respectable enough: 23.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 8.0 assists per game, shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3-point land. But he clearly lacked the burst off of his ailing right ankle to engage in the sorts of predatory behaviors we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him at this time of year: hunting mismatches in the pick-and-roll to blitz past slower-footed bigs or bum-rush point guards, and bulldozing smaller wings in the post to either get to the basket or open up kickouts to waiting shooters. (James shot just 5-for-12, 41.7 percent, out of the post against Phoenix, according to Synergy’s play-tracking data; he’d been above 54 percent in his previous three postseasons.)

The Suns made LeBron play in traffic constantly. Every off-ball defender had a foot in the paint, loading up on his drives. His primary wing defenders dug in hard to try to push him off his spots as he posted up, with Ayton lurking behind as the last line of shot-blocking defense. Even the guards he picked out on switches all worked to slide their feet, body him up, and get a good contest without fouling. (Booker did an admirable job on that score in Game 6, in addition to setting fire to everything he touched on the other end.) In playoffs past, we’d see LeBron respond to all that attention by just putting people in the basket. This time around, though, things were a bit less forceful:

It wasn’t just a lack of lift that grounded LeBron, though, leading him to take more shots from 3-point range than in the restricted area in Round 1. The Suns packed the paint aggressively because they trusted their defensive rotations and closeouts and didn’t trust any of the Lakers’ supporting shooters to make them pay. They were right: L.A. shot a dismal 29.9 percent from deep as a team in the series. The only player besides James to make more than 35 percent of his triple tries was Marc Gasol (7-for-11), whom coach Frank Vogel plugged into the starting lineup only in Game 6 in hopes of decongesting things. (It didn’t work: While Gasol dished a team-high-tying seven dimes, he attempted just one shot in 18 minutes—it wasn’t a 3—and Phoenix repeatedly targeted him in screening actions on the other end, all but running the 36-year-old off the floor.)

Dennis Schröder: 8-for-26 from 3. Wesley Matthews: 7-for-25. Kyle Kuzma: 4-for-23. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who, in fairness, battled a sore left knee throughout the series): 4-for-19. Alex Caruso: 5-for-17. What do you get when you surround a not-quite-himself LeBron with guys who aren’t making 3-pointers, and remove AD’s ability to physically overwhelm defenders? An offense that produces a dismal 102.6 points per 100 possessions—a tick below what the league-worst Thunder mustered during the regular season—and the first opening-round exit of James’s illustrious postseason career.

The silver lining to that exit: LeBron and the rest of the Lakers can now embark on an extended offseason after going the distance in the bubble, getting back to work just 71 days later, and playing through a five-and-a-half-month slate compressed and compromised by COVID-19 and the protocols the NBA adopted to stall its spread. Rest, rehabilitation, and a return to full health for James and Davis are the most important offseason priorities facing the Lakers. Following closely after that, though, is Rob Pelinka and Co. trying to figure out what lessons to take from this season when it comes to building around their stars.

After winning a title with screen-and-dive lob threat centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, the Lakers changed course, bringing in Gasol to add floor spacing and playmaking; Montrezl Harrell to provide more interior scoring; and later Andre Drummond to crash the boards and kinda-sorta approximate the vertical spacing that the title-winning centers brought. Gasol fit well into the revamped starting five early in the season, but struggled mightily to hold his own defending in space as the season wore on—he averaged 6.6 fouls per 36 minutes against Phoenix. Harrell’s minutes, usage, relevance, and potency all dipped from his Sixth Man–winning heights with the Clippers; he never seemed to get fully integrated into the offense and became an afterthought in the playoffs. Drummond had ups and downs on both ends, but played only about 300 total regular- and postseason possessions alongside James and Davis, according to Cleaning the Glass. Did L.A.’s brain trust see enough out of any or all of the bigs to determine definitively whether they should return? If not, what sort of center do they think best complements LeBron and AD at this stage?

The other big move L.A. made last offseason was trading Danny Green and a first-round draft pick to Oklahoma City for Schröder. That deal clearly indicated a belief that the Lakers needed more scoring and playmaking juice alongside James and Davis; Schröder provided both admirably throughout the regular season, but largely failed in his maiden postseason voyage with the Lakers, averaging 14.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game on 40 percent shooting. He’s now an unrestricted free agent—one whose Bird rights the Lakers hold, but one who also reportedly declined a four-year, $84 million extension offer in favor of testing the market.

The 27-year-old guard said after the Game 6 loss that he wants to return to L.A. and try to win a championship next season. If he’s got his sights set on more than $21 million a year, though, and this is the postseason résumé the Lakers will be evaluating, will they choose to keep him around, or might they prefer to find another source of juice elsewhere? And if it’s the latter … um … how will they afford it?

As it stands, the Lakers are already just about at the projected 2021-22 salary cap line with LeBron, AD, Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, and Harrell (who’s got a $9.7 million player option for next season) on the books. They’ve also got decisions to make on paying Caruso, a huge part of what’s been the league’s best defense for the past two seasons who’s now an unrestricted free agent, and emerging wing Talen Horton-Tucker, who’s hitting the restricted market. Unless they can shed salaries to teams with cap space—a tough sell, considering the Lakers don’t have much in the way of draft capital to entice teams to take on their money—L.A.’s going to be capped out, with few talent-adding avenues available.

Even pricing in some age-related regression for James—two significant injuries in three years proves we can’t consider him invulnerable anymore—the prospect of a healthy LeBron and AD still gives the Lakers as good a starting point as any team. The Lakers need to augment the support structure around them, though: to find a way to lighten their loads, to ease their burdens, and to provide them with the space to thrive.

Last offseason’s moves suggested that Pelinka and the front office saw that need; the loss to the Suns felt like both a confirmation of it and a condemnation of the players they brought in to fill it. When you’re able to rely on full-strength LeBron James and Anthony Davis bending defenses to their whims and destroying an opposing offense’s every action, you’re an immediate inner-circle contender. When you’ve suddenly got to hope that the likes of Schröder, Kuzma, and Horton-Tucker can meet your shot creation needs in the playoffs, though … well, you can become just another pretender to the throne awfully quick.